California’s viticulture history dates back to the 18th century, when Spanish missionaries planted the first vineyards to produce wine for religious sacraments. Nearly 300 grape varieties were grown in the state in the early 1900s, when there were nearly 800 California wineries scattered around the state. Growth of the state’s wine industry was stunted on January 16, 1919, when the 18th Amendment brought Prohibition and vineyards were ordered to be uprooted and cellars were destroyed. Although some vineyards converted to table grape or grape juice production and a few remained to produce sacramental wine, most went out of business. By the time that Prohibition was repealed in 1933, only 140 wineries remained in the state.
Following a wine renaissance in the mid-20th century, Californian wine entered the international stage at the 1976 Judgment of Paris wine competition when Californian wines beat out French wines in both red and white wine categories.
Today, ranked by volume, California is the fourth largest wine producer in the world, behind Italy, France and Spain. In 2005, California wineries shipped more than 225 million cases domestically and internationally.
The California Wine Institute divides the state into five major wine producing regions:
- North Coast – which includes Napa Valley and Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties.
- Sierra Foothills – which includes El Dorado, Amador and Calaveras counties.
- Central Valley – with wine grape growers found predominantly in Lodi and the San Joaquin valley.
- Central Coast – with major appellations in the Livermore Valley, the Santa Cruz mountains and Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
- Southern California – centered around Temacula, a city north of San Diego in the Inland Empire area of the state.
Visitors are often surprised to learn that only about 400 of the nearly 2,800 California wineries are located in the Napa Valley and that roughly half of California wineries produce less than 5000 cases per year.
While the bigger wineries often offer the most interesting tours, you should definitely include some of the smaller ones on your list for tastings. Some wineries are open by appointment only, and in the summer months it can be necessary to make those appointments six to eight weeks in advance. Some wineries offer free tastings, and while $5-10 seems to be typical if there is a charge, some that include a tour and/or food accompaniments will cost more. It’s best to do some advance research and have a plan in place before you venture out to enjoy California wineries.
Since California law criminalizes driving with a blood alcohol concentration at or above .08 percent, one of the best ways to learn about and enjoy this component of your California vacation is to contract with a limousine or tour company and leave the driving to someone else. You should also be advised that state law makes it illegal to have any open container of alcohol in the passenger compartment of a vehicle. Legal drinking age in the state is 21.
Note: Information in this article was accurate
when it was published, but hours, prices, etc.
change constantly. Please confirm details
with local contacts before traveling.